Guy R. McPherson
University of Arizona professor
Apr. 6, 2008 12:00 AM
M. King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist employed by Shell Oil Co., described peak oil in 1956. Production of crude oil, like the production of many non-renewable resources, follows a bell-shaped curve. The top of the curve is termed peak oil, or Hubberts peak, and it represents the halfway point for production.
The bell-shaped curve applies at all levels, from field to country to planet. After discovery, production ramps up relatively quickly. But when the light, sweet crude on top of the field runs out, increased energy and expense are required to extract the underlying heavy, sour crude. At some point, the energy required to extract a barrel of oil exceeds the energy contained in barrel of oil, so the pumps shut down.
Most of the worlds oil pumps are about to shut down.
We have sufficient supply to keep the world running for 30 years or so, at the current level of demand. But thats irrelevant because the days of inexpensive oil are behind us. And the American Empire absolutely demands cheap oil. Never mind the 3,000-mile Caesar salad to which weve become accustomed. Cheap oil forms the basis for the 12,000-mile supply chain underlying the just-in-time delivery of plastic toys from China.
There goes next years iPod. In 1956, Hubbert predicted the continental United States would peak in 1970. He was correct, and the 1970s gave us a small, temporary taste of the socio political and economic consequences of expensive oil.
We passed the world oil peak in 2005, and weve been easing down the other side by acquiring oil at the point of a gun actually, guns are the smallest of the many weapons were using paying more for oil and destroying one culture after another as the high price of crude oil forces supply disruptions and power outages in Third World countries.
The world peaked at 74.3 million barrels per day in May 2005. The two-year decline to 73.2 million barrels per day produced a doubling of the price of crude. Later this year, we fall off the oil-supply cliff, with global supply plummeting below 70 million barrels/day. Oil at merely $100 per barrel will seem like the good old days.
Within a decade, well be staring down the barrel of a crisis: Oil at $400 per barrel brings down the American Empire, the project of globalization and water coming through the taps. Never mind happy motoring through the never-ending suburbs in the Valley of the Sun. In a decade, unemployment will be approaching 100 percent, inflation will be running at 1,000 percent and central heating will be a pipe dream. In short, this country will be well on its way to the post-industrial Stone Age.
After all, no alternative energy sources scale up to the level of a few million people, much less the 6.5 billion who currently occupy Earth. Oil is necessary to extract and deliver coal and natural gas. Oil is needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines, and to maintain the electrical grid.
Ninety percent of the oil consumed in this country is burned by airplanes, ships, trains and automobiles. You can kiss goodbye groceries at the local big-box grocery store: Our entire system of food production and delivery depends on cheap oil.
If youre alive in a decade, it will be because youve figured out how to forage locally.
The death and suffering will be unimaginable. We have come to depend on cheap oil for the delivery of food, water, shelter and medicine. Most of us are incapable of supplying these four key elements of personal survival, so trouble lies ahead when we are forced to develop means of acquiring them that dont involve a quick trip to Wal-Mart.
On the other hand, the forthcoming cessation of economic growth is truly good news for the worlds species and cultures. In addition, the abrupt halt of fossil-fuel consumption may slow the warming of our planetary home, thereby preventing our extinction at our own hand.
Our individual survival, and our common future, depends on our ability to quickly make other arrangements. We can view this as a personal challenge, or we can take the Hemingway out. The choice is ours.
For individuals interested in making other arrangements, its time to start acquiring myriad requisite skills. It is far too late to save civilization for 300 million Americans, much less the rest of the planets citizens, but we can take joy in a purpose-filled, intimate life.
Its time to push away from the shore, to let the winds of change catch the sails of our leaky boat.
Its time to trust in ourselves, our neighbours and the Earth that sustains us all.
Painful though it might be, its time to abandon the cruise ship of empire in exchange for a lifeboat.
By Guy R. McPherson Tucson, Arizona Published: 03.28.2007
By day, Chris conducts research in conservation biology and prepares for the intellectually demanding exams required of doctoral students. At home in the evening with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, he teaches himself to create fire by rubbing sticks together.
Chris is one of the graduate students with whom I am fortunate to work, and he has wisely chosen to live in two worlds. The first is the overindulged culture of make-believe in which most Americans are comfortably ensconced; the second is the real world of peak oil. World oil production reached a peak in 2005 at 85 million barrels per day. Weve been easing down the bell-shaped oil-supply curve, losing production slowly and gradually. Next year we will fall off the oil-supply cliff, with an average daily production of less than 78 million barrels.
The response of the Bush administration has been to go to war to get oil. Thus far, weve exchanged considerable blood and $500 billion for a couple million barrels of oil each day. By controlling the Iraqi government, weve also assured a place at the OPEC table. Mission accomplished for the oilman in the Oval Office means sustaining the American Dream one barrel at a time.
By 2015, when world demand is projected to exceed 120 million barrels per day, world supply will drop below 65 million barrels. The double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment of the 1970s, a predictable result of the continental United States passing the oil peak, will seem like the good old days. For that matter, so will the Great Depression. Seems the American Dream, rooted in the suburbs and propped up by cheap gasoline, could transform itself into the American Nightmare. The Stars new Interstate 10 widening blog, called Gridlocked, will be revealed as the chimera it is.
Oil priced at $100 per barrel represents serious sand in the economic gears of empire. Imagine what happens when demand outstrips supply by a factor of two or more, and oil is priced at $400 per barrel. Because this country mainlines oil, it is easy to envision the complete collapse of the U.S. economy within a decade.
Because all energy sources are derived from oil, the implications for the Old Pueblo are particularly grim: delivery of water, food and air conditioning depend on ready supplies of cheap oil.
Peak oil is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. If World War II rates a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10, global warming is a 3 and peak oil is a 12. Most experts who write about peak oil predict complete economic collapse within a decade, followed shortly thereafter by anarchy.
Although we could employ a variety of conservation measures to mitigate the impacts of ever-decreasing supplies of oil, no politician would propose such a career-ending strategy. After all, conservation went out of style in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House and trumpeted economic growth as our only god.
According to Reagans campaign slogan, it was morning in America, so I suppose he thought future generations wouldnt need electricity.
Now what? Its time to start making other arrangements, the kind that do not include cars, airplanes and the delivery of cheap plastic crap to a Wal-Mart near you. Its time, in other words, to start living in the real world.
Take a page from Chris: Start learning skills for a post-carbon world. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to be well-fed and even revered in your local community.
If that community is Tucson, I recommend you learn how to harvest water, grow edible crops and get along with your ill-prepared neighbors when its 100 degrees and the calendar says summer is still around the corner.
Joe Garcia The Arizona Republic Apr. 9, 2008 10:46 AM
LIVE TALK GUEST: Guy R. McPherson, professor of conservation biology at the University of Arizona.
Dr. McPherson has a bachelors degree in forest resources from the University of Idaho, a masters degree in range science from Texas Tech University and a doctorate in range science from Texas Tech. He is the author or co-author of such books as Living with Fire: Fire Ecology and Policy for the Twenty-first Century, Letters to a Young Academic: Seeking Teachable Moments, Killing the Natives: Has the American Dream Become a Nightmare and Ecology and Management of North American Savannas. He also serves on a number of scientific and environmental advisory boards.
Read the Q&A, comment at end of story.
Welcome to aztalk Live Talk Wednesday with Professor Guy R. McPherson.
Q: In your April 6 Sunday Viewpoints essay (www.viewpoints.com), you say some pretty frightening things: $400 for a barrel of oil soon, our oil supply running out altogether in 30 years, the modern world coming to a screeching halt because of lack of energy. How much of this do you actually believe, and how much is a scare tactic to get our attention?
A: I believe everything I wrote. I am trying to inform people, not scare them. I do not benefit from peak oil or spreading the word about it. Indeed, it will cost me my 401k, my 403b, and the job I love, and writing about it has been costly to my so-called career. And then theres the consequent hate mail
However, one minor correction: I indicated the current supply of oil would be exhasted in about 30 years at current levels of demand, but demand destruction will certainly result from high prices (this is already occurring in third world countries and for many people in the U.S.). As a result, I suspect well be pulling oil out of the ground as long as people occupy the planet.
My estimate for $400 oil within a decade comes from these sources: Hubberts model predicts well be producing about 60 million barrels per day in 2018, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts global demand at about 110 million barrels per day by then. The French investment bank Ixis-CIB forecasts $380 oil in 2015, so my estimate is relatively conservative.
Q: All three presidential candidates Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain are in favor of energy diversification and committed to battling global warming. So arent we, as a nation, finally getting on the right track?
A: First and foremost, all three viable candidates support economic growth,which strongly depends on the use of oil. They all support increasing efficiency, but not conservation. Conservation is political suicide, as Jimmy Carter discovered. The track were on is a monorail with a cliff at the end.
Q: What needs to happen to avoid a complete meltdown of the American Empire, as you call it? And do you believe there is still time to avoid what you refer to as the post-industrial Stone Age?
A: First, let me explain Empire: We exploit humans and resources, often with extreme violence, to provide Americans with indulgences beyond belief to most people.
Had we started the project of powering down at least 30 years ago, there might still be time. At this point, I cannot imagine any steps that could allow us to avoid a meltdown of the economy or a relatively rapid transition into the post-industrial Stone Age. We depend on abundant, inexpensive oil for delivery of food, water, shelter, and health care. The days of abundant, inexpensive oil are behind us. American Empire will soon run its course.
I am hopeful we can save a few tens of millions of Americans. But we will need to make massive changes in our entire way of life, starting immediately. We must abandon the project of globalization and its attendant indulgences, for example, and focus on saving lives. The difficulties inherent in delivering our food, water, shelter, and health care in the absence of fossil fuels create a daunting set of challenges, to say the least. Roscoe Bartlett, who co-chairs the Peak Oil Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, says the task is analogous to putting a man on the moon. A more appropriate analogy is a large human colony on Jupiter. In any event, this will not be easy.
Q: What personal measures do you take for conservation? And what personal measures do you recommend others take as a way to individually contribute to a sustainable energy future? And does it really matter or must everything be done on a grander, global scale?
A: I drive a compact, hybrid-electric car. I live in a small, old rental house less than two blocks from the University of Arizona, where I work. I buy only what I need, and I check labels with care. I avoid eating meat because vegetarianism saves water and energy. I use compact-fluourscent bulbs in my house. And so on, totaling dozens or perhaps hundreds of daily decisions.
Ultimately, none of these actions matter at all. My lifestyle has virtually no impact on the global system. Id be willing to bet the U.S. military uses more oil in a weekend than I will use in my entire life, and corporate CEOs and politicians who control this country are firmly committed to maintaining the status quo, regardless of the costs to us, other cultures and species, or future generations.
Q: Are you a firm believer in solar energy? They say the technology isnt quite there yet, but perhaps if the investment happens the technology will follow? Arizona seems to be missing out on a possible bright future here, if you pardon the pun.
A: I was a firm believer in solar, wind, and geothermal energy until a few years ago, and I still believe they will help individuals. But no combination of these renewable technologies will make a notable difference at the level of 300 million Americans, much less the 6.5 people in the world. Consider the vaunted Canadian tar sands, for example: They currently use abundant energy and clean water to produce less than 2 million barrels of oil each day, and the goal is to reach nearly 5 million barrels per day by 2020. We currently produce more than 70 million barrels per day at the global level, and demand is outstripping supply. By 2020, demand is projected at more than 110 million barrels per day. The wished-for 5 million barrels per day from the tar sands is a drop in the ocean, too little and too late to prevent our descent into the Stone Age.
Q: Will we ever get away from oil? Its still a relatively cheap way to produce and use such energy and a lot of folks are getting rich. Oil companies made record profits last year, and I dont see any movement to remove oil companies from federal tax breaks and subsidies. Plus, almost everything we own and use needs oil to run it
A: I think humans will be using oil as long as we occupy the planet. Had we leveled the playing field between heavily subsidized fossil fuels and renewables several decades ago, we could have used oil for important tasks, such as manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, and railroad tracks with electric rails. Instead, we built suburbia, subsidized consumption of fossil fuels, and ripped the solar panels off the White House. In short, we doggedly pursued economic growth as our only god.
Q: What about drilling in Alaska wilderness refuge and more off-shore drilling? Would this help Americas supply of oil? Or would this just delay the inevitable?
A: These sources comprise part of the roughly 1 trillion barrels of oil remaining on Earth, but they are relatively small amounts. They would delay the inevitable by a few months, at most.
Q: One option, surprisingly, you dont mention is war over oil. There is the belief out there that if worse comes to worst, America will secure its oil supply through military means with national security being the justification. Your thoughts, or are we talking about World War III?
A: Actually, I hinted about war with my statement about acquiring oil at the point of a gun. Weve been using our military to secure fossil fuels, including oil, at least as far back as World War II. The well-respected historian Howard Zinn connects the dots very well with respect to World War II. More recently, Alan Greenspan noted in his recent book that the occupation of Iraq is about oil. I have no doubt we will continue to use our military might to secure oil, and we will be joined by other nations. Currently, we spend more money on our military than all other nations combined, so we will continue to be best at using our military muscle to acquire vital resources.
Q: Not a word in your essay about Iraq either. Does that mean you dont subscribe to the theory that the war was about oil to begin with? Or perhaps just the beginning of military options?
A: Iraq was not the first war we fought to secure oil. It will not be the last. Most Americans do not want to know where the oil comes from: Ignorance is bliss, after all.
Q: So, at the end of the day, are your optimistic or pessimistic about the energy prospects for America? Will the cavalry swoop in and save us at the last minute, and who exactly is that cavalry?
A: There is no cavalry. No alternatives scale, and were out of time. We made the important decision about energy policy at two critical junctures in American history: (1) shortly after WWII, when we created the interstate highway system and the suburbs to build a way of life that had no future because it relied completely on ready supplies of a finite resource, and (2) in 1980, when we dismissed conservation at irrelevant I guess we didnt think we needed lights any more, because it was morning in America.
Q: Any message to America as we approach Earth Day, which is coming up April 22? Anything other than gloom and doom, I mean? Is bloom anywhere in that equation?
A: Absolutely. This is wonderful news on many levels. Passing the world oil peak means the world economy will collapse, thereby giving other cultures and species an opportunity to persist a few more years. Economic growth is tightly linked to extinction rates, so the forthcoming Greatest Depression is great news from the other occupants of planet Earth.
In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will fail to voluntarily prevent frying the planet beyond the point of habitability. But peak oil forces us to stop burning fossil fuels, which might give us a chance, as a species, to squeeze through the global-change bottleneck. Peak oil is the last chance for our species, and many, many others with which we share the planet.
Thus, if you care about other species, or even about our species, peak oil is good news. However, if youre like most humans, you care a lot more about yourself and your loved ones than about people you dont know and especially future generations. And thats how we got into this mess.
Q: Thank you for participating in aztalk Live Talk Wednesday.
A: The pleaure is all mine. Thank you for facilitating discussion of this critical issue. Readers who would like to continue the conversation are welcome to comment on my blog, Nature Bats Last: http://blog.ltc.arizona.edu/naturebatslast/